Iraq: Nowhere to turn
In the fight against Islamic State, civilians have paid the highest price
The Mosul Offensive
On 10 June 2014, the IS fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and surrounding towns and villages. Civilians in Mosul and other areas in the province of Ninewa were swept up in the group’s reign of terror.
On 17 October 2016, Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces, with support from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Sunni tribal fighters and the US-led coalition, launched a military operation to retake Mosul. They have recaptured territory in areas surrounding Mosul and several neighbourhoods in the east of the city.
IS has used civilians as human shields, forcibly displaced civilians and carried out suicide bombings in an attempt to thwart the advance of the Iraqi forces.
The human rights abuses and war crimes committed by IS are truly shocking, and will have profound effects on the region for years to come. But Amnesty International’s research shows that Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and various militias have also committed serious human rights violations. These include extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and forced displacement.
On a visit to the region in December 2016, Amnesty International met children of all ages who had suffered terrible injuries after being caught in the line of fire.
Iraq is currently facing very real security threats from IS, but there can be no justification for executions, torture or disappearances.
Who are the key players in the conflict in Iraq?
By mid-2014 the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) had captured large swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq, declaring the establishment of a “caliphate”.
Various Iraqi government forces are participating in the battles to recapture territory from IS including the army, the Counter-Terrorism Service and the Federal Police.
Predominantly Shi’a militias grouped under the umbrella of Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) are backed by the Iraqi government. They were officially designated part of the Iraqi armed forces in February 2016, but they had long enjoyed government support including salaries and military equipment.
Composed of fighters from Sunni tribes, the Tribal Mobilization militias have played an increasing role in the fight against IS and in securing areas that have been recaptured. While much less powerful than the PMU, some tribes within the Tribal Mobilization have also received support from government authorities.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), in the north of the country. Kurdish armed forces known as Peshmerga play a key role in the campaign to retake territory from IS.
In September 2014, an anti-IS coalition was established. It is led by the USA and today comprises 68 members, including states such as the UK, France and Germany and institutions such as the European Union and the Arab League.
Research by Amnesty International shows that IS has carried out ethnic cleansing on an catastrophic scale, systematically targeting non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim communities in northern Iraq.
As IS advanced on towns and villages in Sinjar in August 2014, Yezidis who did not manage to escape faced abduction, enslavement, and forced conversion. Hundreds of Yezidi men from the region were captured and shot dead in cold blood. The group indoctrinated and recruited boys, including Yezidi captives, using them in battle. Hundreds are still missing.
Rape and other sexual violence
Thousands of abducted Yezidi women and girls, some as young as nine, were separated from their relatives and then “gifted” or “sold” to other IS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Local politicians, activists and care-providers estimate that some 3,800 women and children remain in IS captivity.
IS has also claimed responsibility for deadly bomb attacks, suicide attacks and other violence in Iraq, frequently targeting civilians, including in Shi’a religious shrines and neighbourhoods.
Life under the IS
Residents who live in areas captured by IS suffered horrific human rights abuses under the group’s brutal rule, including mass summary killings, torture, abductions, and enslavement, as well as hunger and deprivation. Shi’a Muslims, religious and ethnic minorities and perceived opponents of IS rule were systematically targeted.
IS enforced strict rules on dress, behaviour and movement on the inhabitants who remained in the areas they controlled, and meted out cruel punishments for any transgressions.
“We lived in a nightmare for two years,” said “Mohamed”, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, describing life under IS rule in Mosul. On one occasion, he was forced to watch the public stoning of a couple accused of adultery.
Iraqi government forces
Since late 2014, Amnesty International has documented extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings perpetrated by Iraqi forces and allied militias.
In late October 2016, Amnesty International researchers visited several villages south of Mosul, which had recently been retaken by Iraqi forces. They gathered evidence indicating that up to six people were extrajudicially executed in late October, apparently due to suspicions they had ties to IS. In some cases the men were tortured before being shot dead execution style.
Iraqi forces have also detained without charge or trial thousands of men and boys suspected of having ties to IS. Others were keeping them in horrendous conditions in makeshift detention centres and denying them contact with lawyers and families.
Since the emergence of IS in Iraq, thousands of Sunni Arab men and boys have been subjected to enforced disappearance by Iraqi security forces and militias. Some victims went missing after handing themselves over to pro-government forces or after having fled territories controlled by IS, while others were picked up from IDP camps and other settlements, checkpoints, homes, workplaces, streets and other public places.
More than 3 million people remain internally displaced in Iraq, mainly from Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa and Salah al-Din provinces. UN agencies estimate that by mid-December nearly 97,000 people fled Mosul and surrounding areas since the military operation was launched on 17 October.
Between July and November 2016 Amnesty International visited several camps housing hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people where families described their daily struggle to survive in dire conditions.
Many had risked their lives to escape from areas under IS control only now to find themselves stranded in makeshift camps where there is insufficient humanitarian aid. Those displaced face arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on their freedom of movement. As a result, they remain confined to camps, and have to rely on handouts.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Popular Mobilization Units
Killing with impunity
The growing power and influence of Shi’a militias under the umbrella of the PMU has led to a state of lawlessness and impunity with militia members, killing, abducting, torturing, forcibly disappearing and committing abuses that in some cases amount to war crimes.
In January 2016, armed Shi’a militia members went on a rampage, in “revenge” for a suicide attack by IS. They abducted and killed Sunni men and burned and destroyed Sunni mosques, shops and property in various neighbourhoods in Muqdadiya, a town in the governorate of Diyala.
After the explosion at the café, militias went to Sunni houses and shot the first men to open the door.
"At night I go to sleep dreading the morning. I have nothing left to offer to my children and I can’t bear to look them in the eye."
Tribal Mobilization Militias
Punitive revenge attacks
Amnesty International researchers spoke to witnesses from the village of al-Makuk, near Mosul, which was retaken by Iraqi forces from IS on 20 October 2016. They described how fighters from the Sunni Sab’awi Tribal Mobilization militia had entered the village after IS retreated, but before the Iraqi army arrived. They immediately began rounding up men and older boys.
One witness described how six militia members dragged a man into the courtyard of his house and accused his brother of being a member of IS, before brutally beating him in front of his wife and children, leaving him unable to stand.
They kicked him to the ground and 'tasered' him three times. They punched him and beat him with the back of their Kalashnikovs.
Kurdish armed forces
Deliberate destruction of civilian property
In the name of fighting IS and ensuring security, Kurdish authorities have also committed violations. They have deliberately destroyed civilian property, forcibly displaced Arab Sunnis and barred them from returning to their homes.
For instance, in the aftermath of a surprise IS attack on the Kurdish-held area of Kirkuk on 21 October 2016, Kurdish authorities carried out a wave of “revenge” attacks, demolishing homes and driving out hundreds of Arabs.
“Muhayman”, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, a 40-year-old father of 10 from a village south-west of Kirkuk, was forcibly displaced twice by Kurdish forces. He described how men in military uniform came to the Manshiya area of the Wahed Huzairan neighbourhood of Kirkuk city on 24 October 2016 and ordered residents to leave by morning. Early the next day they were forcibly evicted and bulldozers demolished homes late into the night.
“I was ordered by Peshmerga out of my own village, so I built a home here… Now we are homeless again, and we are all sheltering with my brother. Where are we supposed to go?”